Thursday, October 29, 2009


The Graveyard Book was 20 years in the making, according to Neil Gaiman in his 2009 Newbery acceptance speech. He first got the idea for the book when he watched his son, Michael, ride his tricycle in the cemetery of his old Sussex neighborhood. Michael is now taller than his father. He is 25; the same age Gaiman was when he started The Graveyard Book.

What a terrific example to share with young people about how to slow down and not rush things. From the time we are children in school, we are often driven by deadlines. We have due dates for written reports and oral presentations, we attend practices to prepare for football or basketball games, track or swim meets, recitals and plays. Once we enter the working world, there, too, we have due dates for reports, projects, and presentations to bosses, colleagues, and clients.

It’s easy to get caught up in the goal and lose sight of the process. It wasn’t always just about the trophy, was it? At first, wasn’t it the pure pleasure of running under the trees, or swimming out to the sandbar, or giving voice to a song? We start as amateurs, in its original sense of cultivating something for the love of it. Maybe we return to it because it gives us joy, and the more we run or swim or sing, the better we get. We run sprints and swim laps and practice scales, and we learn more about how far we can go. And if we're lucky, and if we stay with it, one day it all comes together.

In those intervening 20 years, Neil Gaiman did not stop writing. He wrote his Sandman series, American Gods and Coraline, to name a few. But he did eventually return to The Graveyard Book. Gaiman said that when he wrote the last two lines of his Newbery Medal-winning novel, he realized, “I had set out to write a book about a childhood . . . I was now writing about being a parent. The fundamental most comical tragedy of parenthood: If you do your job properly . . . they won't need you anymore. If you did it properly, they go away.” He continued, “I knew I'd written a book that was better than the one I had set out to write.”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Staying True to Yourself

When I first started teaching (and that was 20 years ago now), Halloween was all about the costumes and the candy and who could get the most. It’s still all about the costumes and the candy and who can get the most.

What I love about Dav Pilkey’s The Hallo-Wiener (aside from the fact that it stars a Dachshund, a breed to which I’m partial), is that he exploits these two facts to their fullest comic potential. And because he is so funny, Pilkey is able to subtly touch on two themes here that often plague childhood: acceptance for being exactly who you are, and bullying—which are often related.

The other dogs make fun of Oscar because of who he is (“Wiener Dog! Wiener Dog!”). He looks different from the other pups pictured. He’s long and low to the ground. He looks forward to Halloween because he can escape into another identity with his disguise. But his mother, who loves him for who he is, buys him a costume that accentuates the very trait for which he is ostracized (a hot dog bun with mustard). Not only that, but the costume’s unwieldiness slows his pace, and the candy’s all gone by the time he arrives at the front door of each house on his route.

When I hit my teens, my peers began teasing me about my red hair and freckles. I’ll never forget in 8th grade science class, the most popular jock telling me I had “puke-red hair.” And even worse, I remember my mother’s hairdresser, while giving me a haircut, told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll be beautiful when you’re 30.” There I was with my puke-red hair, freckles and braces, and I was miserable! Like Oscar, I wanted to escape into other disguises. So I acted in plays and literally became other characters. Later, I was glad to have had all of my theatre experiences, which I likely would not have pursued if I’d been welcomed into the popular crowd. Today I even enjoy being a redhead. But try telling that to any child or teenager. They still have to live through all of this awkwardness and discomfort.

In this humorous but gently wise tale, the very characteristic that make Oscar the butt of his peers’ jokes—his low point of gravity—gives him the perspective and the strength needed to spot the true identity of the monster and also to unveil the monster for what it is. The other pups are grateful that Oscar saved them, and appreciate his resourcefulness.

Yes, the book is most of all a sweet and satisfying humorous tale in which the underdog winds up on top. But it also has some strong points to make that, after many rereadings, your youngsters will begin to internalize, whether you ever discuss its subtle lessons or not.

So even though much of the fun of Halloween is dressing up and stepping into another identity (and eating bagfuls of chocolate), Dav Pilkey’s clever comedy tells us that, ultimately, we need to be comfortable with who we are all year long.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Fine Line Between Fright and Humor

How many times have you seen a scary movie and laughed in relief at a false alarm? Laughter is our preferred way to release tension. Harriet Ziefert and Rebecca Doughty in Halloween Has Boo! do a bang-up job of walking that line between funny and gently frightful for toddlers.

Art Spiegelman, who started his career writing and drawing Wacky Packages jokes for Topps gum (like "Quacker Oats," featuring a duck in place of the usual pious gent pictured on the familiar cardboard oats canister), says that much of what we find to be humorous arises out of conquering one's fears. He points to a classic example, the jack-in-the-box. When a child first encounters the toy, he or she does not know what to expect, so when Jack pops out, it's frightening. But once the child knows how the jack-in-the-box works, and that he or she can predict when the doll will pop out, and that replacing the top will close Jack back securely inside, the child thinks it's wildly funny.

As they get older, kids enjoy scary rides at an amusement park, whether that takes the form of exhilarating speed (as in a roller coaster) or tantalizing terror (as in a haunted house tour). Getting through a frightening situation makes us feel braver somehow. One of my favorite things about summer as a kid was gathering in a circle around the campfire and telling ghost stories. In these weeks leading up to Halloween, I'll be posting some more of my favorite spine-tingling tales for young scary story–lovers, but one of the best things about a book is that you can put it down at any point if it gets to be a little too scary.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Remaining Awake

The theme that unites Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia is to remain awake. With its miles of cement curbs, stop signs, and perfectly mown lawns, the suburbs can lull us into a kind of sleepwalk. We stop noticing the details, the people, the leaves changing, the smoke from a chimney, even the extraordinary water buffalo on the corner (featured in his opening story). And we don’t have to be living in the suburbs to lose our powers of observation. It can happen on city blocks or deep in rural territory.

A few weeks ago, when I interviewed Kate DiCamillo, she said that writing is about “being able to turn and look at everything you might not normally see.” And—these are my words now—good writers describe what they see in ways that are meaningful for someone else, that allow us as readers to enter the experience. Painters often say they paint what they feel more than what they see. But carefully chosen details allow us to stand where the writer or painter is standing and bring our own experience to the situation he or she is attempting to capture.

That’s what Shaun Tan does. He has the advantage of both tools: his text and his artwork. And he wields pen and paintbrush with equal power. He allows us to see the world from what we might normally think of as the constricted viewpoint of the leaf-like close-to-the-ground star of “Eric,” but instead we see a whole world open up in the beauty of a flower-shaped drain, and the surprise of a blossom that springs from bottle caps and peanut shells. Two boys have one opinion of a neighbor, then change it when they witness her transformation after a stranger shows up at her door. And perhaps most inspirational of all, he hints at the secret creative lives that dwell behind those closed suburban doors, and their discarded attempts at a poem gathering strength and letting loose a shower of “faded words pressed into accidental verse.”

“Every child is an artist,” Picasso said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Children live completely in the moment. They notice everything and want to name everything and learn all that they can learn about the things that interest them. I believe that’s what Picasso was talking about: how do we remain curious and interested and surprised? Tan, like Picasso, suggests that young people point the way. Our challenge is to encourage that impulse in young people as they move from childhood to adolescence, where they begin to explore adulthood and responsibility. And our challenge is to model that even as adults we continue to be open to the little changes and small details that make everyday experiences astonishing.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Matter of Trust

When Sharon Creech and her editor, Joanna Cotler, talk about how they began to work—and continue to work—together, they both say that it all boils down to trust. Sharon needed to know she could trust Joanna with her words; Joanna needed to learn how Sharon liked to work so that she could earn Sharon’s trust.

The parallel struck me that this is just what children face at the beginning of each school year. Can I trust my teacher to look at my work and see what I’m trying to do beneath that? If I make this new friend, can I trust him or her? Young people may not express it in quite that way, but that’s what is happening—we know that as adults. It takes so much courage to begin to trust. Georgia O’Keefe, whose glorious paintings often feature one flower that dominates an entire canvas, said, “To see a flower takes time./ To make a friend takes time.” Friendship, and trust itself, means seeing someone fully, listening closely, observing carefully.

This is the theme of The Unfinished Angel, Sharon Creech’s novel published this month. Angel observes the little town of Ticino so carefully and over so many hundreds of years that Angel knows its “peoples” and all of the small events that have shaped each one. So when young Zola comes along and notices a group of orphaned children taking refuge in a nearby shed, Angel has trouble believing it. How did Angel miss that turn of events? And who would let a group of children fend for themselves? This becomes the turning point in Angel and Zola’s relationship, and also in their growth as individual beings (one otherworldly, one human). Through that experience of trying to protect the children together, Angel and Zola begin to trust each other.

In this video of a conversation between Sharon Creech and Joanna Cotler, they talk about how they developed that trust, as writer and editor, and they use the example of Love that Dog. But when they move on to talk about its companion, Hate that Cat, they demonstrate what can grow out of that kind of trust--the ability to delve into deep questions together. Joanna asked, of Jack (the hero) but ultimately of Sharon as author, “Why do you write?” Often it’s not about giving someone an answer, it’s about asking the right question and then companionably standing by while she plumbs the depths to find the answers for herself.